“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
That famous aphorism is usually attributed to Joseph Stalin, sometimes to Adolf Eichmann, and occasionally to Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front), more rarely to various other people. It makes no difference who said it first; it is one of the most cold-bloodedly trenchant assessments of war (or, in the case of Stalin, the merry butchering of an entire people by a tyrant) ever made. And it is also the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wonderful and everything that is not so wonderful about Dunkirk.
The evacuation, in just three days, of roughly 400,000 British (and French, Belgian, and as well as some Polish and Dutch) forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, where they were trapped between the sea and the invincible might of the German Army, is one of the most unbelievable, magical, miraculous triumphs of will, sacrifice, determination, and above all of courage, in all history. The Royal Navy, augmented by hundreds of private, shallow-draft boats—fishing boats, pleasure yachts, ferries, anything seaworthy—crossed the channel (some of them multiple times) to rescue Allied troops from the extremely shallow beaches around Dunkirk.
Were the Battle of Dunkirk and the battles that led up to it defeats for the Allies? Of course, but Dunkirk was also, in a perverse way, a victory in terms of its positive morale boost for the Allies and its negative morale effect on Hitler. It is axiomatic among all military forces that a single act of courage can inspire an entire army and turn the tide of battle. The courage of the beaten soldiers and their intrepid rescuers—so many of them civilians—at Dunkirk, inspired the British people in ways that probably, ultimately, led to victory, even as it showed Hitler he could not roll over the British as easily as he had over other European democracies and armies. At least, that’s my theory; I have no idea if historians agree with it.
To satisfy both the demands of story-telling and the first part of Stalin’s aphorism, the movie wisely focuses on a single man, played by Fionn Whitehead (playing an architype named Tommy, “Tommies” being British slang for their soldiers in World War Two), whose death would be a tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t tell us enough about him to make us really care; it would be a far greater tragedy if we knew him more and better, but the only character in the movie who is given any backstory whatsoever is the civilian owner and skipper of a yacht, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance.
As for the last part of the aphorism, the approximately 400,000 thousand other soldiers are only hinted at, admirably hinted at, but never seen in their entirety because, logistically, how could they be shown? So too, the makeshift armada of rescuers (some 800 boats, historically, of all sizes and shapes) is only hinted at, and the result of those diminished representations leaves the casual, historically uneducated viewer with the impression that a few thousand soldiers were rescued by a few score civilians, and that—sadly—diminishes not only the movie, but the historical context and importance of this most valiant and heroic moment in man’s bloody story.
And that is perhaps the greatest weakness of Dunkirk. I am no historian, and my knowledge of World War Two comes as much from my father’s voice—ah, that beloved and greatly missed voice!—as we walked around the many varied battlefields he took me to during the eight years we lived in Europe as it does from books, yet I was ahead of Darleen, who had to keep asking me questions all through the movie. Who? Why? Why not? Where? When? And why again? If the movie had been able to convey the magnitude of danger for Great Britain, it would have mattered less that we have no vested emotional interest in the soldier played by Fionn Whitehead.
(For the record, if those soldiers had been lost, England, that sceptered isle, that royal throne of kings, that other Eden, that happy breed of men, that precious stone set in a silver sea, would have been completely unable to defend itself, and Hitler’s planned invasion would have gone ahead and his armies would have rolled over the last European stronghold of freedom and democracy as easily as they had over all the rest of Europe. As it was, even with the unparalleled triumph of Dunkirk, the British were still nearly helpless. Ever since World War One, the British government had been systematically disarming its citizens, in violation of their own rudimentary Bill of Rights and unwritten constitution, so that their entire civilian population was armed with nothing more than a handful of custom sporting shotguns and even fewer custom sporting rifles to defend their sceptered isle. Thousands and thousands of Americans voluntarily stepped into the breach and donated their beloved hunting rifles so the Brits could defend themselves. Having learned nothing from history, Great Britain is today once more completely disarmed and has a higher rate of violent crime than South Africa’s and twice as high as America’s.)
On the other side of the equation, if the script had given us even as little backstory about Fionn Whitehead as we had for Mark Rylance, we would have been emotionally hooked enough to find the death of that single man a tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie never does either, and the result is that we have neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat to sink our teeth into.
On the plus side, the movie uses special effects and unrelenting sound to convey some of the equally unrelenting violence and horror of war. Young Tommy is on the move constantly in his desperate effort to stay alive, and each new sanctuary turns out to be a more horrible death trap than the last. You can understand all too well the blank, thousand-yard stares of those men who are lucky enough to survive major battles; it is a look the movie captures very well toward the end, when Tommy and some of the other lucky ones find themselves back in England. And I know it is just special effects, but kudos to the director for capturing a small taste of the nightmare of men being burned to death as they drown, the floating fields of oil on the water’s surface bursting into flame and roasting men alive.
To quote the last line of Bridge on the River Kwai: “Madness! Madness!”
But special effects don’t make a movie, and while we know this was a critically important pivotal point in the war, and while we know this was one of the truly transcendent moments of courage and altruism in all of human history, both the majestic triumph and the personal humanity are lost in muddy middle ground between tragedy and statistics.